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18.6.15

Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.2 (Part 1)


Preceded by "Gustav Mahler — Symphony No.1 (Part 1 & Part 2)"
Continued here: "Gustav Mahler — Symphony No.2 (Part 2)"


The gestation period for the Second Symphony was the longest of any of Mahler’s symphonies, and with nearly 59 months of labor—from the first sketches on July 8th 1888 to the final touches on March 29th 1894—it is only appropriate that the resulting baby should be a musical elephant of grand proportions.

At ~80 minutes (usually a few more, occasionally a few less), it is not the longest of Mahler’s symphonies (the Third is), nor the most opulently orchestrated (the Eight is). But it has one of the boldest opening movements (as “Totenfeier” it could and did stand on its own as a symphonic poem) and a grandiose finale that is composed so that it must, invariably, be overwhelming. For someone who never had any resounding success or external encouragement as a composer, this Second Symphony is almost more impressive than his First.

Moving, in the interim, from jobs in Leipzig via Budapest to Hamburg and dealing with personal tragedies (his sister and mother died), Mahler finally took to working again on the Second in the summer of 1893: he incorporates, transforms, and expands his Wunderhorn songs “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” (“St.Anthony’s Sermon to the Fishes”) and “Urlicht” into the work as the third and fourth movements*, and returns to the sketches of the slow second movement. (The movement order was actually in limbo for quite some time, which is good to know when that discussion pops back up with the Sixth Symphony.)



Condensing his own thematic analysis of the symphony, Richard Specht describes the four (five) movements’ themes as: “Hero’s lament”, “Reflection” (“A ray of sunlight from the Hero’s past life”), “Life’s Dance of Shadows”, and “Resurrection”. The last movement progresses from anticipating the last judgment and hearing the trumpet of the apocalypse to the chorus of the saints after suspenseful silence which cumulates in a declaration of universal love. Hence the nickname “Resurrection”, especially when Mahler once described the earlier Scherzo with these words: “The world and life become for him [the hero] a disordered apparition; disgust for all being and becoming grip him with an iron fist”. The movement later inspired Luciano Berio for his “Sinfonia”.

Just the last movement, for which Mahler envisioned a grand choir—unfavorable comparison to Beethoven’s 9th by critics be damned—refused to get under way. Only when he attended a memorial service for the great conductor Hans von Bülow did the break-through come. Just a few years earlier von Bülow had reacted very discouragingly when Mahler played through the first movement on the piano for him. Apparently this champion of his contemporaries Wagner, Brahms, and then Richard Strauss, the most important man in German music of his time, had made a face and then said, without a trace of humor: “If what I have heard here is music, I understand nothing about music… compared with this, Tristan is a Haydn symphony.” But now Mahler witnessed the chorale setting of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s secular song “Auferstehn, ja Auferstehn” which enjoyed brief popularity in the 19th century, and he immediately knew he had found the text needed to compose this symphonic-choral apotheosis that leaves no listener since its 1895 Berlin premiere untouched.




available at Amazon G.Mahler, Sy.2,
P.Boulez / Schäfer, DeYoung / WPh
DG

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon G.Mahler, Sy.2,
G.Kaplan / Moore, Michael / WPh
DG

UK | DE | FR
It may have been hasty to put the just-released Boulez / Wiener Philharmoniker on top of the heap immediately after it appeared (see review here). But it is a passionate reading that offers delicacy and—not to be scoffed at—superb sound. When the tempo changes from ‘Scherzo-like’ to “very broad” in the last movement, Boulez makes you soar over a green hill, toward the light; you can feel the lift of the music more acutely than with any other conductor. Especially since the surround sound SACD version has been discontinued, Boulez makes the second Kaplan recording utterly superfluous: Equally well sounding in red-book stereo (Boulez was given some of the best DG-sound from the Musikverein in Vienna, recorded by engineer Wolf-Dieter Karwatky and Tonmeister Christian Gansch), the performances are fairly similar in conception except for Boulez’ being superior in every detail and with better vocal contributions. Michelle DeYoung is a splendid mezzo for this role, even if I tend to prefer Abbado’s Anna Larsson. Christine Schäfer’s crystalline, pure soprano—without sacrificing expressiveness for those qualities—might well be ideal and offers a good contrast to the huskier DeYoung.


available at Amazon G.Mahler, Sy.2,
I.Fischer / Milne, Remmert / Budapest FO
Channel Classics

UK | DE | FR
An even newer recording of the Second got rave reviews, among them from the New York Times and Washington Post. Fischer Iván and the Budapest Festival Orchestra with Lisa Milne (soprano) and Birgit Remmert (mezzo) have issued their second Mahler recording and it sounds wonderful—both as an interpretation and because of the sound quality that Channel Classics () was able to capture in the new National Concert Hall. With his second Mahler out (Fischer is no fan of complete cycles, so don’t expect him to do them all; at least not the Eighth), Fischer’s approach can be likened to Abbado’s. He prefers round over harsh edges, subtlety over blazing glory, tenderness over abrasiveness. Since the Second Symphony is in little need of harsh, abrasive, or even blazing elements, both conductors succeed—but Fischer more so. Just like Fischer’s Sixth (discussed below) is more rhythmical engaging than Abbado’s overrated Berlin version, Fischer’s Second makes it easier to capture your interest. Adoring Abbado and his Mahler as I do, Fischer better manages to magnify the difference between ‘smooth / subtle’ and ‘bland’. His soloists are no drawback, the chorus good. If Fischer’s first movement is more alive than Boulez’, the latter’s ‘moments’ and ‘transformations’ are more impressive, still.


available at Amazon G.Mahler, Sy.2,
C.Abbado / Gvazava, Larsson / Lucerne FO
DG

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon G.Mahler, Sy.2,
C.Abbado / Neblett, Horne / CSO
DG

UK | DE | FR
Abbado’s first recording from Chicago (1977) is very beautiful by all means and his soloists—Carol Neblett and Marilyn Horne—do him proud. The chorus, too, performs superbly, even if you can’t understand what exactly they are singing. For all the beauty, the impact of this Second (coupled with his Vienna Fourth from 1978 on a DG “2CD” set) in the first three movements is too muted for me. The strongest moments come with Marilyn Horne’s Urlicht and at the beginning and the end of the 5th movement. (Unfortunately an editing glitch mars that movement just at the choral entry “Bereite Dich” [track 14, 1’14’’].) Good as it is, with Eteri Gvazava and especially Anna Larsson as his singers, I prefer Abbado’s most recent (his third) recording from Lucerne with ‘the world’s best pick-up band’ (DG—together with a shimmering La Mer, briefly reviewed in the “Best of 2004” list). The hushed qualities, the relief and redemption, the sense of a momentous occasion are well captured. Only the sound could be a little clearer for unadulterated delight. Abbado’s 1994 recording from Vienna disappoints, despite the promising collaborators Cheryl Studer and Waltraud Meier with her chilling, dark “O Rrrrrrrrröschen rrrrrrot!”. Splendid moments amid a rather sedated quality (at 87 minutes)—it is, perhaps, too subtle?

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The font used in the title is “Galadriel Regular”

Find a list of the ex-WETA Mahler Posts here: http://ionarts.blogspot.com/2009/12/mahler-survey.html








2 comments:

His Most Gracious Excellency Saxo Ungrammaticus I said...

Thank you excellent. May I ask what the name of the painting is ?

jfl said...

You sure may. (And sorry for getting back so late. No notifications of these comments, sadly.)

It's the excellent Oskar Laske's equally excellent Fischpredigt (1919).